Clasico – October 25, 2014.

The first Clasico was supposed to be one of the best matches of the season. It was, up until about 30 minutes lapsed. And then it all started to unravel in unspectacular fashion. One mistake after the other, things were getting worse. Injuries piled up. Stars faded. Substitutions seemed not to stop the bleeding. There was no fight to the final whistle. Is this the end of Barcelona as we know? At least for another season or two it looks like it. Factor-in the transfer freeze for two seasons it looks like the goose is cooked.
Losing a Clasico is not the end of the world. One team has to lose unless it is a well fought draw. The intensity is so much a result is almost always registered. Many times, it is easy to pick the exact mistake, a point of brilliance, or a lapse of concentration that led to the match-winning goal. Not this time. The gulf in performance was so large, there were flashes of November 2010, all in reverse. The 3-1 score line utterly flattered the control real Madrid had over Barcelona, at least in the second half.
Quite a few times this season we have seen Barcelona hold the ball and surround the opposition’s box in futile. There seems to be that final piece of penetration missing from this team. The only hope is that Luis Suárez provides that spark. In a way, he did. He had to be restrained by two defenders paying close attention every time he drifted into the box. The one time he unlocked the defense the referee harshly called a foul. The other unexpected problem was, there was no one else to capitalize on the advantage that Suárez created. So unusual of Barca. If Barca cannot lift itself against its eternal competitor Real Madrid, is there hope against smaller boring teams?
There seemed to be two matches being played by Barcelona in the second half. A direct game played by Neymar and a traditional possession-based game played by the rest of the team. Suárez seemed to be one of the players trying to actively engage Neymar in the game. When he was gone, so did the supply to Neymar. As the second half progressed, Neymar seemed to be more and more isolated, with plenty of space around him, but nobody passing the ball. The ball rarely moved through the left flank. When teams defend in numbers, Neymar is at a loss. He needs a little more space to swat around defenders as if they don’t exist. This game needed Messi at his best, at the very least, and he went missing, big time.
The first Clasico of 2014/15 season should be a stark reminder for Luis Enrique and the Barcelona faithful that the honeymoon is certainly over. It is back to the drawing board again. I have never seen Barcelona so low on morale. That should hurt the faithful.
A flash in the pan was Luis Suárez, who didn’t disappoint. He is one player who can shoulder the burden of a whole team, as he did last season. With fresh legs and missing a large chunk of the season, he should be more than hungry. And he is not known to choke on big occasions.
Until then, get your thrills when Atlético plays Real.

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Atleti are favorites for the Champions League

Defeats can sometimes be very important in the evolution and transformation of a person or a team. No amount of strategizing in a classroom can equate to the emotional experience handed by defeat. Many times, defeat is an essential ingredient of greater success. The defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the first leg of the Copa Del Rey semifinals was an important turning point in the making and evolution of this Atletico team this season. The lesson was not about losing points. Atletico has lost to many smaller teams in more disorganized ways. The lesson was about the reaction to an early goal and the ability to shrug off early setbacks that punish the style of play employed by Atletico. It was a costly lesson as the Copa Del Rey is emotionally an important tournament for the Atleti. It was the win over this same Real Madrid in this same tournament last year that boldly proclaimed the arrival of a third force in Spanish football, a league that has become a two horse race in recent years.

Atletico deploy the most organized defence in modern football. Today, it is the most comfortable team able to confidently defend a single goal advantage. The counterattacking nature of scoring doesn’t promise a rain of goals and so every goal is extremely precious. Setbacks in the form of early goals usually snuff-out the Atletico threat and make the team work harder than ever, sometimes pushing it beyond its ability leading to larger defeats. The ability to shrug off the setback and grow resilient was the lesson learned from the defeat in the hands of Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey semifinals. A deflected goal pushed that game beyond redemption. But the lesson was learned, which was put to display when Atletico met Real Madrid again in the league. There was a repeat of an early setback, but there was no capitulation. In fact, by the time that match ended, Real Madrid was the one on the ropes and was more than happy to escape with a single point.

The progression of this season has also improved how the Atletico midfield plays together. The team is now more confident defending and so has started creating better chances in the opposition’s box. The progress has been so fast that it created three hits on the post and a goal in the opening 20 minutes against Barcelona in the return leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. This is in a match where Barcelona clearly had a mission to score, to nullify the away goal advantage held by Atletico. By the time it ended, we didn’t see the usual tired and panting Atletico praying for the 90 minutes to end. It was in fact Barcelona that looked tired and panting praying for the match to end to stop prolonging the beating being handed out. All this without the two most visible stars in Diego Costa and Arda Turan for Atletico, who were both sidelined with injuries.

The match itself was so one-sided that a detailed writeup is like prolonging the agony of a really painful surgery. Messi was nowhere to be found, his usual flair missing in front of the goal and having to drop deeper to spruce up the defence. It appeared as if the Argentine genius had his mind somewhere else, far away from the Calderon. The Neymar show had the usual brilliance in the wings flattering to fail when it counted, tightly marked out in the box. Iniesta was far more dangerous but lacked support. The new thinking in Barcelona seems to favour connecting Iniesta with Neymar, who seemed to be the more dangerous pair than anyone else on the pitch. The match had a strange feeling that it had all been destined even before the starting whistle had sounded. Barcelona looked so jaded and out of sorts reminding the Champions League semifinals last season.

Come this weekend, Atletico would again labour to a grinding win against another mid-table team in the league. That would be more a reflection of bordeom rather than inability. Diego Simeone’s biggest challenge in the league will be to keep his players motivated in the smaller, but equally important, matches. He might do well to rotate the players giving the usually benched ones an opportunity to have a go and add some spirit to the games.

If this Atletico is not a favorite to win the Champions League, then who is? Many write about the mighty Bayern, but I feel Bayern Munich is yet to see a real team. Atletico is no more afraid of other teams on this planet. It is now the other way around.

Atleti are red hot!

The fate of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona seems to be completely entwined with each other this season. The more entwined they get, less and less separates them. They have met thrice this season before this Champions League quarterfinals fixture and all of the matches have ended in draws. So far, except for an away goal won by Barcelona, they both remain inseparable.

The Champions League Quarter Finals between Atletico and Barcelona was an unwanted tie for both the teams at this stage. They know each other so well and are both fierce competitors. Any game between these two teams is going to sap every ounce of energy from all the players. With just a single point separating the same two teams in La Liga, this match had more at stake. If there were any tactical vulnerabilities or uncertainties they do not want the other team to know at this stage, since the last match in La Liga will almost certainly be a title decider between these same two teams! You couldn’t write a more thrilling or potentially heartbreaking script than this.

This game lived up to every cent of its billing and ended in a well deserved 1-1 draw with Atletico having a slight advantage on away goals. The game demonstrated the well-established contrasts in style with Barcelona attacking with all-round possession and Atletico parrying every advance with inch-perfect defense. The fact that Atletico didn’t blow it in their own third by getting a red card or penalty with many close encounters is proof that Atleti have the meanest defense in football right now. The organization and confidence displayed by Atletico in defense is probably the best in world football today. I do not expect to see any team able to break down this team this season. The suffering in the hands of Real Madrid, after an early goal shellshocked them in the Copa Del Rey semifinal first leg, is now history. Atletico proved their improved resilience against the same Real Madrid side when they met in the league and drew, a match arguably Atletico should have won. Atletico are no more dark horses. Only injuries can stop this Atletico team.

Many expected Atletico to just wither away as the season comes to the tail end of business and the usual suspects, Barcelona and Real Madrid, to share the spoils. Diego Simeone, the Atletico coach, seems to have completely missed the draft. Except for visible tiring at the end of the second half, his squad seems to be capable of pulling it off against any team in the world.

Iniesta and Messi seemed to have exchanged T-shirts before the game! That should have been the cunning plan of Tata Martino. Iniesta connected well with everyone and was supremely mobile and able to find space easily. He was far more dangerous than the Argentine genius throughout the game. He was trying to cut in with every possible opportunity and was clearly not holding back his position in the midfield as he usually does. Messi played a more allround game creating chances and sometimes defending deep. And of course, he did have his shot at goal as well.

Iniesta was out and out the best player on the pitch, matched only by Thibaut Courtois, the brilliant Atletico goalkeeper. If Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, leaves Atletico at the end of the season, it will be a greater loss than the rumored departure of Diego Costa, their talismanic striker. Iniesta identified and created the pinpoint pass to Neymar and the Brazilian forward had no difficulty in finding the back of the net. There only existed a nanosecond of a gap before the onrushing Godin (or was it Juanfran?) would have closed the door. And there was just a single degree of angle within which Courtois would have palmed the ball away. For all the complaints about Tata Martino picking Neymar when his form has been questionable, this one moment of brilliance redeemed it. Neymar can be utterly tongue-tied in front of the goal as demonstrated so many times this season.

The Atleti defense, as usual, got the job done with little drama. There was no panicking. In fact, for the last 15 minutes of the game, Atletico were just throwing the ball back into Barcelona’s hands, more than willing to defend. The Diego goal from 30 feet was a moment of brilliance that he himself will be unable to repeat. No goalkeeper could have anticipated and stopped that screamer of a goal. If Atletico have one blemish in their armour, it would be their increasing reliance on long-range efforts against quality opposition. No matter how good their defense, a single goal in 90 minutes should be a distinct possibility for any world class team! That is what Barcelona will be hoping for in 8 days’ time. Atleti have to find the back of the net with minimal involvement of the midfield to keep their game flowing and intact. The injury of Diego Costa, who has been performing this near impossible task with aplomb, could be the single deciding factor if Atletico lose it from here.

Despite all the pressing and running, the Barcelona squad looked more spirited at the end of the match and was creating chances by the minute. This was not helped in any way by Arda Turan, the Atletico midfielder who played one of his best games the last time these two teams met, having an indifferent day. Barcelona supporters too clearly played their role in the match getting behind their team for the whole 90 minutes.

There is now a clear respect for Atletico, which shows that the team has been accepted as belonging to the top echelon of Spanish football. Not that Diego Simeone needs acceptance! He is a man who commands respect by letting his team talk on the pitch. But even Simeone seems to have gathered a newfound swagger and a smile. His mission to take Atleti to the top, in a season when they lost one of their eternal mentor in Louis Aragones, is at last within touching distance. This could be the greatest footballing story of our life, signified by the presence of Messi and Cristiano who gave their all to stop this juggernaut called Atletico.